Campus lawyers are responsible for mitigating institutional risk. They do that by forging productive working relationships with colleagues whose jobs involve high levels of risk exposure.
Some of these colleagues operate one or two levels beneath the senior officials with whom board members typically interact. Let me introduce some of the people who function as institutional “first responders.” Trustees should know who they are and appreciate what they do.
The Risk Manager. Campus risk managers protect institutional assets by identifying high-risk activities and mitigating risk. The coin of the realm in risk management is the “claim,” a formal assertion that institutional impropriety or negligence has caused injury. The risk manager tracks claims, procures insurance policies to protect against the most predictable categories of claims, and creates training and monitoring programs designed to reduce the number of claims.
The Public Safety Director. Campus police departments typically report to a public safety director, who in many instances is a former municipal police chief, state trooper, or FBI agent. The public safety department provides security at events, enforces parking regulations, conducts safety inspections, and maintains the blue-box emergency telephone system. On many campuses, police officers function under state law as “sworn” officers, meaning they carry weapons and are empowered to make arrests.
The public safety director serves as the institution’s liaison to local, state, and federal lawenforcement agencies. In the worst kind of campus crisis—a shooting, natural disaster, bus accident, child-abuse case, disruptive demonstration—a seasoned public safety director plays a critical role by ensuring that the campus discharges its obligations to other criminal-justice agencies.
The Residence Life Director. No major administrative area on campus has grown more significantly over the last generation than student affairs or student life. Under the aegis of a vice president or dean, student life manages a broad range of undergraduate-oriented functions: extracurricular activities, intramural sports, Greek life, career services, student health, and student discipline. All pose institutional risks in varying degrees. But special risks arise when thousands of students—many only 18 or 19 years old and away from home for the first time—live in close quarters in campus residence halls. Those residence halls are all under the purview of the residence life director.
As supervisor of a large team of resident advisers, the residence life director is frequently the first official to sense that a student may be experiencing adjustment problems. Good residence life directors combine the best qualities of counselors, parents, and friends. They recognize signs of incipient stress. They know how to coax students into getting the help they need.
The Director of the Employee Assistance Program. On many campuses, programs are available to assist employees with personal concerns, which may or may not be work-related. They include workplace conflicts, marital and parental pressures, substance abuse, coping with grief, or handling other personal challenges that affect job performance. The EAP director is usually a trained counselor or human resources professional. He or she comes to the aid of employees in distress by interceding with supervisors and providing access to support services. By addressing the roots of problematic workplace behavior, EAP professionals save the institution from grievances and lawsuits.
The Internal Auditor. Higher education institutions are required to comply with hundreds of laws and regulations, and there can be serious legal consequences for noncompliance. The internal auditor evaluates institutional systems to ensure that all expenditures are subject to sound institutional controls. “If there is a problem,” as the internal auditor at one large university writes on the office’s Web site, “it’s better to find it and fix it before external auditors review our practices.”
For every unsung hero I have identified, there are 20 more—the head of human resources, the director of student conduct, the research compliance officer, the environmental health and safety officer, and many others—who share first-responder duties. Together, they do the hard work of mitigating risk on your campus.